alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 15: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Not much of a plot summary to provide for this one, since it’s a re-telling of classic Arthurian legend, but from the perspective of the women. And if you’re unfamiliar with Arthurian legend, get thee to Wikipedia, or Cliff’s Notes, or something.

The three main perspectives we get in the novel are that of Igraine, wife of Uther Pendragon and Arthur’s mother; Morgaine, known more commonly as Morgan le Fay and half-sister of Arthur; and Gwenhyfar, more commonly known by the non-Welsh spelling of her name, Guinevere. Igraine’s narrative provides the first part of the book, where we learn how she was more or less manipulated by her sister, Viviane, into marrying first Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and then Uther Pendragon, destined to be High King. Though it doesn’t take long for Igraine to feel what she believes is love for Uther, she is still suspect that she has been spelled into her feelings. This first section sets up two recurring themes that are of chief importance in the novel: first, much of what the traditional narrative frames as masculine conquest and male power is actually equally influenced by the machinations of women (particularly those at Avalon); secondly, much of this influence goes unrecognized by the world outside of Avalon, so the primary importance of women still seems to be, to most people, producing an heir.

The majority of the book is a third-person narrative that focuses on Morgaine, though we do get periodic chapters from Gwenhyfar’s angle. Because Morgaine/Morgan le Fay is usually classically portrayed as an evil sorceress, Bradley’s take on her here is an attempt to fill in the second side of the story. Usually, the motivation ascribed to Morgan is that she wants to dethrone Arthur and torment Guinevere; here, we see that her struggle is less about who the High King and Queen are, and more about preserving the Celtic paganism that is being increasingly eradicated in the face of a seemingly militant and oppressive Christianity. The paganism is friendly to and inclusive of women and, indeed, worships a Goddess, while Christianity appears how we’re familiar with it in that time: overly pious, concerned with sin, and overtly patriarchal. Given Morgaine’s view of how Christianity treats women, it makes sense that she would be wary of a High King that increasingly allows this religion to dominate the land and cause Avalon, one of the last remaining vestiges of pagan worship, to disappear into the mists.

Gwenhyfar is the counterpoint to Morgaine’s perspective, as the Christian Queen who grew up first with a negligent/borderline emotionally abuse father and then was placed in a convent. Exceedingly pious, she struggles against what she feels are sinful thoughts and desires. She is chiefly instrumental in the slow but eventual conversion of Arthur and his Court to Christianity, despite his loyalties being previously pledged to Avalon.

From what I saw on Goodreads, it seems like people either love or hate this book. Personally, I liked it a lot, but I won’t say that it was easy or quick to get through. It was kind of a daunting assignment to give myself during a speed read — I had to pick up several shorter books while in the midst of reading this to re-energize my mind. It’s a long (~900 pages) and rather disheartening account, since giving the women back their voices doesn’t, unfortunately, give them happy lives. I liked the humanization of Morgaine and the real talk about how oppressive Christian doctrine can be, so even though I knew it was coming, it was still depressing when Avalon eventually receded out of consciousness, taking its paganism with it.

The Mists of Avalon is basically considered a modern classic at this point. I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of Arthurian legend and/or feminist literature. I’ve seen some weird discussions on whether or not this is actually feminist because the female characters aren’t all exactly liberated and don’t have a ton of agency, but to me those criticisms miss the point. Though Bradley takes some liberties with the myth, I don’t feel that the point was to write a whole new story were Morgaine, Igraine, and Gwenhyfar were, like, the Warrior Women of the Round Table, or something. It just seems like a nice shift of the conversation to actually engage the women, rather than have them as cheerful background baby-makers and off-set seductive sorceresses.

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